Don Pullen

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
Krentz Ratings:
Solo Piano Album (1975), 7/10
Healing Force (1975), 7/10
Five to Go (1975), 7/10
Capricorn Rising (1975), 7/10
Jazz A Confronto (1975), 6/10
From Rag Time to No Time (1975), 5.5/10
In:Sanity (1976), 6/10
Suite for Swingers (1976), 5.5/10
Tomorrow's Promises (1976), 5.5/10
Montreux Concert (1977), 6/10
Warriors (1978), 7/10
Milano Strut (1978), 6.5/10
The Magic Triangle (1979), 5.5/10
Don't Lose Control (1979), 6/10
Beautiful Africa (1979), 5.5/10
Safe (1979), 5/10
At Nyon (1979), 6/10
Negcaumongus (1979), 6.5/10
A Well Kept Secret (1980), 6/10
Earth Beams (1980), 5.5/10
Lifeline (1981), 6/10
Melodic Excursions (1982), 5.5/10
Evidence of Things Unseen (1983), 7.5/10
City Gates (1983), 5/10
Live at the Village Vanguard (1983), 5.5/10
Decisions (1984), 5.5/10
Sixth Sense (1985), 7/10
Breakthrough (1986), 5.5/10
Song Everlasting (1987), 7/10
New Beginnings (1988), 6/10
Random Thoughts (1990), 7/10
Kele Mou Bana (1991), 7/10
Ode to Life (1993), 5.5/10
Sacred Common Ground (1995), 5.5/10

Virginia-born pianist Don Pullen (1941), who, after playing briefly in Chicago in Muhal Richard Abrams' Experimental Band, moved to New York in 1964, was one of the musicians who bridged blues and free-jazz piano. When he backed such free-jazz gurus as saxophonist Giuseppe Logan (1964-65) and drummer Milford Graves (1966), Pullen mainly displayed a acrobatic technique (famously sounding like two pianists) that allowed him to do just about anything (as free as he wanted to be) while still playing melodies. It thus came natural to him to extend the technique at the piano to bring it in line with the experiments being carried out at the saxophone. The result sounded very similar to Cecil Taylor's style, but Pullen had reached the same point via a different path: not the brain, but, quite simply, the fingers. He composed a requiem for Malcolm X (1965), but could never perform it.

He was sidestepped for a few years until he was rediscovered by Charles Mingus (1973-74). His Solo Piano Album (february 1975) revealed an eclectic and mesmerizing performer, and, thanks to the 15-minute Sweet Suite Malcolm (the first movement of the requiem) a ten-minute Big Alice (destined to remain his most famous theme) and a nine-minute Song Played Backwards, a composer with an uncanny ear for melody and rhythm (he rarely recorded other people's compositions). Pullen then jumped from the free-jazz generation straight onto the "creative" generation, working with David Murray (1976-77), Hamiet Bluiett (1977-80) and Joseph Jarman (1979). It was the beginning of one of the most spectacular late careers in the history of jazz.

Pullen, tenorist and flutist George Adams, bassist David Williams and drummer Dannie Richmond formed a quartet that debuted on Jazz A Confronto (march 1975), with Pullen's Calypso In Roma and Traceys Of Daniel, and then was hijacked by Adams for his Suite For Swingers (july 1976). However, the solo concerto continued with two more imposing installments: the tour de force Five To Go (july 1975), that contained two side-long improvisations, Five To Go and Four Move, and Healing Force (october 1975), perhaps the most mature of the three although less spontaneous than the former, structured in four balanced pieces: Pain Inside (15:50), Tracey's Blues (8:30), Healing Force (8:25), Keep On Steppin' (18:40).

Another quartet with saxophonist Sam Rivers cut Capricorn Rising (october 1975), dominated by Rivers' compositions but also by Pullen's eleven-minute Capricorn Rising. And yet another quartet recorded the live Montreux Concert (july 1977), that included Pullen's side-long Dialogue Between Malcolm and Betty. Tomorrow's Promises (july 1976), that debuted Kadji, featured Pullen in different settings.

Best of all these quartet sessions was Warriors (april 1978), with tenorist Chico Freeman, that delivered the 31-minute Warriors as well as the shorter (13 minutes) Land Of The Pharoahs. The piece de resistance, overflowing with catchy melodies and propulsive rhythms, despite the harmonic anarchy, was Pullen's definitive aesthetic statement. Somewhat influenced by Charles Mingus, the music was able to metabolize a broad spectrum of styles. Due to his versatile ambiguity, he became an unwilling evangelist of free jazz among the listeners of non-free jazz.

Milano Strut (december 1978) had four sophisticated duets with percussionist Don Moye, notably Conversation, Communication and Curve Eleven Adding Joseph Jarman on flute, piccolo, tenor, soprano and clarinet, they recorded The Magic Triangle (july 1979). The quartet with Adams recorded his memorable 16-minute Double Arc Jake on Don't Lose Control (november 1979).

For a while Pullen's main output was directed towards the quartet with Adams, yielding Earth Beams (august 1980), Lifeline (april 1981), with Adams' Nature's Children and Pullen's Newcomer Seven Years Later, City Gates (march 1983), dominated by Adams' compositions, Live At The Village Vanguard (august 1983), with The Necessary Blues, Decisions (february 1984), with Trees And Grass And Thangs, Breakthrough (april 1986) and Song Everlasting (april 1987), until Dannie Richmond died in 1988 and the quartet disbanded. This was Pullen at his more accessible. Pullen and Adams also recorded a duo album, Melodic Excursions (june 1982).

The 360 Degree Music Experience, formed with drummer Beaver Harris, recorded From Rag Time To No Time (february 1975), featuring Ron Carter, Cecil McBee, Jimmy Garrison, Dave Burrell and others; In:Sanity (march 1976), with the addition of Hamiet Bluiett, containing the 21-minute Open; Beautiful Africa (june 1979), with Ken McIntyre on alto sax, bassoon and flute; Safe (june 1979) from the same session; the live At Nyon (june 1979), containing 19-minute tracks composed by McIntyre; Negcaumongus (december 1979), containing just one lengthy piece. Their final album, A Well Kept Secret (recorded in 1980), featured Hamiet Bluiett (baritone sax), Ricky Ford (tenor sax), Buster Williams (bass), Francis Haynes (steel drums), Candido (percussion), and the french horn quartet of Sharon Freeman, Willie Ruff, Bill Warnick and Greg Williams, and contains the 17-minute Goree.

Pullen's mature music was better represented by Evidence Of Things Unseen (september 1983), with Evidence Of Things Unseen, Victory Dance and the 18-minute In The Beginning. A quintet with altoist Donald Harrison and trumpeter Olu Dara penned In the Beginning, The Sixth Sense and Tales From The Bright Side, pieces that were typical of Pullen's stylistic blur, on The Sixth Sense (june 1985).

The sound of the quartet was further streamlined by New Beginnings (december 1988), a sonic gem of trio jazz with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Tony Williams, although of little substance. Pullen's second trio album, Random Thoughts (march 1990), was more cerebral than the first one, thanks to longer tracks (Random Thoughts, Indio Gitano and Ode To Life) that displayed his mature technique. The quartet and trio works amounted to a commercial sell-out (short melodic pieces with an emphasis on soothing atmospheres), although they still proved Pullen's magic at the piano. As a composer, he was quickly surrendering to the establishment.

Continuing the trajectory towards mainstream acceptance, Pullen formed the African Brazilian Connection ("ABC") with altoist Carlos Ward, bassist Nilson Matta, percussionists Guilherme Franco and Mor Thiam, and played Afro-Latin jazz on Kele Mou Bana (september 1991), that contained his Doo-Wop Daze, followed by Ode To Life (february 1993), a tribute to George Adams who had died in 1992 (Ah George We Hardly Knew Ya) and his biggest commercial success. Sacred Common Ground (march 1995) combined the African Brazilian Connection (with the addition of trombonist Joseph Bowie) and Native American choir and drums.

Pullen died in april 1995.

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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